Adwick Washland - a potted history

As our regular visitors will know, RSPB Dearne Valley is made up of Old Moor, Adwick Washland, Edderthorpe Flash, Bolton Ings, Gypsy March, Wombwell Ings, and Houghton Washlands. This time, the blog focusses on the transformation of Adwick Washland into the wonderful reserve it is today.

Adwick Washland             Matthew Capper


In 2007 Natural England (NE), the Environment Agency (EA) and the RSPB published a vision for the Dearne Valley. The Valley already had a superb network of wetland sites but there was the potential to create a nationally important chain of wetland sites whilst also delivering multiple benefits through flood alleviation and recreation.

Two EA flood washlands were key to completing that jigsaw – Houghton and Adwick. Adwick had formerly been an open cast coal mine and once mining finished the land was ‘restored’ to create a flood washland, and the land was leased to local farmers.

The RSPB leased the site from the EA in 2011 and now, ten years on, Adwick is one of the best and most productive sites for birds in the whole Valley.


Creation of the Reserve

When RSPB first surveyed the area, they found that protected mammal species such as the water vole were present – and this affected how any development of the site could be planned in areas close to where the voles had been recorded. A work timetable also needed to be closely controlled to avoid the months of March to September, because of breeding birds.

By 2010 a scheme had been designed. It needed to improve the washland for wildlife, whilst ensuring the land would retain its primary function – as a flood storage reservoir. The scheme aimed to turn drained farmland into wet grassland along with areas of reed and fen. Channels and ditches would keep the site wet and move water around – whilst also allowing connectivity for fish, eels and other aquatic life. Cattle would be needed to graze the site to manage the vegetation for breeding wading birds, and water control would allow the team to create muddy edges throughout the breeding and migration seasons for a range of wetland species.

As covered in the previous posts, the Dearne Valley was already valuable to many bird species; including golden plover, grey partridge, skylark, and teal; but the habitat at Adwick wasn’t suitable for successful resident colonies at that point. So excavations, trenches, and the re-distribution of topsoil were to be used to create the bund, fields, reedbeds, pools, wetlands and layers of scrapes.

Adwick from the Air, Matthew Capper

The Science-bit –

One of the things that makes Adwick special is that it’s essential water does not come from the Dearne, but from two streams that run into the Dearne from the North. This means the area can “borrow” water to make wetlands before it reaches the Dearne.  By using and remodelling those same drainage ditches that farmers and others had been using to keep land dry, it was possible to keep the site wet enough to provide a suitable wetland to attract waders, whilst not reducing the flood capacity of the area.


The ‘Works’ – hiccups before the works started

Of course, there are always “hiccups” with projects!

Hiccup number 1 - Land ownership

There were six tenant farmers with long-term tenancies on the land that was earmarked to be turned into the nature reserve. A tenancy on this type of land gives farmers long-term security, and the buy-out cost can be 90% of the market price of the land. However, the EA financed the buying-back of the tenancies across the whole Adwick site!  But what attracted farmers to being bought out?

The 2007 floods devastated the Dearne Valley, and Adwick in particular. Visitors at that time might remember that water was trapped behind the huge flood-banks, and the river was so high it couldn’t get out, and only the hawthorns were sticking out of a huge sheet of water! The farmers lost all of their crops and, as much of this land was only marginally profitable for the farmers, after the floods the EAs compensation payments for the leases looked more favourable.


Hiccup number 2 -  Flood capacity and water control

Wetlands birds need regulated levels of water, so the delicate balancing act that the project had to overcome was to keep water on site, without losing potential flood storage capacity. As the nature reserve project on Adwick was a multi-functional project, including one of increasing the flood capacity to protect Doncaster from flooding, it was not possible to dig holes for bird scrapes and lakes but just move the soil to another part of the site within the flood zone – or the flood capacity would be reduced. But often shipping spare soil out of a site by lorry is not possible, as the transport, disposal and “waste” regulations make it too expensive. Luckily there was one tiny corner of the site out of the flood zone, which could take the soil and make a hill feature – and not change the flood capacity of the area.

And water control on the site required a great deal of ingenuity but is also beautifully simple. It is controlled by 4 drop board sluices.

Hiccup number 3 - Other threats! Open cast / windfarm plans


Whilst the RSPB had a stake in the land, it still wasn’t all plain sailing. The EA were looking for sites for wind-farms, and their large land holding in the Dearne looked ideal.  But, as a wind-farm, it would have put a stop to the nature reserve plans. Luckily, the EA were persuaded to continue the wind-farm search elsewhere!

Adwick was previously an opencast coal mine and there was a proposal from UK Coal to opencast the area again. Whilst restoration of sites for nature after mineral extraction can be great, that could have been a long way into the future, and it would have created a lot of uncertainty over the future of the site. Again, this proposal was repelled by working with neighbouring landowners and the EA. But it was touch and go!


Archaeology – Almost Hiccup number 4!

Researching the Archaeology in the ancient valley bottom would have been costly and time-consuming. A listed 2nd world war gun emplacement next to the site suggested there might be interesting “finds” if archaeological research was undertaken in the area. Luckily the South Yorkshire Archaeological Society was content for the project to go ahead, as UK Coal had already dug up and disturbed much of the site 30 years before – eliminating the need for a costly and lengthy archaeological dig.


The ‘Works’ – What actually happened?

Scrapes were dug with diggers; and lapwing-friendly foot drains were cut with a large “rotary ditcher” that the RSPB owned. It was like a huge Thunderbird toy, and was kept 100 miles away for ‘International Rescue’ to use in emergency ditching missions!

Rotary ditcher, aka “Thunderbirds” to the Rescue!,       Matthew Capper

The project Manager was keen not to build any hides on the Adwick site, for several reasons. A day at Adwick was to feel very natural, just like a day in the countryside, rather than a day at a bird-reserve. Hides can also attract anti-social activity which needs to be controlled; and with few staff on-site that would present difficulties. The hope was to encourage sociability and public use in appropriate places on the site; and to attract multiple visitors – novice and experienced birders, dog-walkers, cyclists, walkers; and both visitors and locals, in an inclusive way. So, the decision was made to have one central spot to view the wetlands; in the middle of the site where there used to be a footpath - and instead of a hide, imaginatively, a drystone wall was chosen to provide this structure.


A local drystone wall, in all senses of the word!

A local drystone waller was asked to build a low viewing wall with a stone block in the middle, to provide a sitting space.

The Barnsley sandstone for the wall came from the Barnsley coal seam; and when the quarry found out the stone was for a nature reserve, they provided free delivery. However, there wasn’t enough stone for the whole structure. Then, completely out of the blue, the Project Manager got a call from a local builder who had been renovating a chapel in Bolton upon Dearne, only half a mile away. He had some original chapel stone that he hadn’t budgeted to remove and could the team use it!!  Both, an amazing stroke of luck, and it was brilliant to rehome the chapel stone where people could come to praise nature.

Collage of ‘Adwick at work’ pictures, by Matthew Capper

Adwick People: Great things happened with the local communities

Throughout the planning of this project, staff had been hoping to engage and interest local people. One particular group that embraced the scheme was the Harlington Women’s Institute (WI). After a talk at the church hall their interest was evident!  The project was about “sense of place” and pride in where you lived, and the WI members totally understood.

Members had stories of the site that made history come alive. For example, their parents herding horses on the area and walking them into Doncaster! And the temporary army barracks near the gun emplacement, and who used to live there.  Later, a member phoned and said “our geese” have just flown over!

Farmers also had an important role to play in the transformation of Adwick into a nature reserve. In many cases there was decades of knowledge on how the land behaved when wet. One farmer continues to farm the land today, being persuaded to remain to graze the land with their premium beef cattle.  Grazing is vital to keep land in suitable condition and vegetation the perfect height for breeding wading birds. This farming is integral to the success of the site as a nature reserve.


Adwick People: Bringing it to life

In researching this piece, I spoke to some of the local people who have helped to nurture and monitor Adwick since its creation.

A number of local birders visit, sometimes daily, to watch and record the birdlife but also to inform to the Warden team about water levels, maintenance needs and any other issues of note. They are the eyes and ears of the reserve and, like the Women’s Institute members, their reminiscences make a subject come to life!

They described how the stream through Bella Wood was formally known as “Milky Stream” – not because of its beautiful Dylan Thomas-esque evocations of Under Milk Wood; but reflecting its actual colour, which was rumoured to be that way because the soapy water that flowed out of the mines at shower-time fed straight into the river!

They also describe how, in years past, they recall the 5-mile area around the Dearne as having a ‘black’ vista, caused by the pit heaps; but now, with its “green” vista, it is transformed.

Collage of ‘Adwick at work’ pictures, by Matthew Capper and Pete Wall

Adwick Washland, now

Adwick Washland now presents a scene of superb scrapes, flashes, pools, and fens. It is mainly lowland wet grassland, dry grassland, scrub, hedges, and water pools. It also has a superb central viewpoint of the drystone wall, giving a 360-degree view of the reserve.  This offers a close view of some of the pools – meaning, at certain times of the year, the visitor is only a few meters away from avocets, godwits, and lapwings; and perhaps even the kingfisher who shoots up the drain located just off the viewpoint.

The Washland is now a place for dog-walkers, cyclists, runners, birders, walkers, and families. The site has been transformed from a place where few records were kept because there was so little to see, to the amazing place it is now, providing a habitat where 141 species of bird were seen in 2020.

In the words of Pete Wall, the Project Manager at the time, “While we were working on the site… it seemed like birds were queuing up to get on, even while we still had all the tractors and dumpers whizzing aroundAt the end of one particularly exhausting day all the diggers had stopped and … literally flocks of birds were flying in to feed and roost on the site… spoonbills turned up and trudged through the building site...  I phoned the warden, Dave, with birds all around me, to tell him and I was too emotional to speak for long. I knew it was going to be special from then on.”

Adwick really ‘wanted’ to be a nature reserve.”   

He was right!

In a previous post on the news that the Dearne Valley Wetlands had recently been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it was commented that “After several years of hard work… Natural England has officially designated the Dearne Valley Wetlands as a SSSI for its habitats and bird species…The flip side of climate change is that, as the planet warms, we are seeing behaviour changes in migrations and breeding patterns where protected areas like the Dearne Valley Reserves will play a vital role in the future by sustaining displaced populations. “  The success in attracting breeding colonies of birds to Adwick Washland after this amazing project is one example of why the Dearne Valley Wetlands is now a SSSI.

The story of the fantastic transformation of the Adwick Washland site would not have been possible without the information, data and photos provided by Pete Wall, Matthew Capper, Nigel Smith, Gary Stones, Ken Foundation, and Gerald Lax

To visit the Adwick site: it is approximately two miles to the east of RSPB Old Moor, and a map with directions can be obtained from the visitor centre at Old Moor. There is a car park on Furlong Road, postcode DN5 7FR, halfway between the villages of Adwick Upon Dearne and Harlington. Visitors are asked to park in the site car park, in consideration of local residents.

Other Species:

Our regular visitors will be familiar with many species that reside in the habitat besides the bittern and marsh harrier; so now is the time to introduce the golden plover

The golden plover is medium sized member of the plover family (which also includes the grey plover (larger), ringed plover and little ringed plover(smaller)). In summer they are golden and black, with a distinctive black throat; but in winter, when they hang out on the water’s edge at Wath Ings, they have winter plumage of buff and white, with a pale throat.  

Their size is 26-29 cm, with a wingspan of 67-76cm.  The UK has around 38-59000 breeding pairs, with up to 420000 wintering birds; numbers being swelled by migrants from Northern Europe, and even further northern countries such as Iceland.

Russ Boland sketch

You can spot them among the lapwing, and will note their upright stance, and their short, bursting runs to feed; and their white “underarms” when flying. They are also easy to spot amongst the lapwing due to their more pointed wing shape. Individual golden plover can look a bit dumpy and plump – especially next to the upright, shapely, lapwing; but golden plover will flock together, both on land and in the air, and become a, sleeker, sparkly spectacle.

They eat insects, beetles, spiders and worms, craneflies; plus seeds and berries – using their bills to prod the sandy flats. 

They will breed on Moorlands between May and September, and have clutches of 4 eggs. Their nests are built on the open ground amongst the Moorland plants, which provide a good view of predators. Both parents are involved in caring for the young.  Incubation takes around 30 days, and birds fledge after 25-33 days.  Average lifespan is 4 years, being able to breed at 1 year old.

To see nesting golden plover, a visit to the North York Moors National Park should provide good views, as it is a “Special Protection Area" due to its internationally important habitat – although if taking a dog please keep it on a lead to avoid disturbing chicks and parents.  

To see wintering golden plover, RSPB Old Moor and Edderthorpe provide beautiful views – and in the later afternoon the winter sunlight provides a photogenic vista of wading plover and lapwing, silhouetted against the shiny, rippling water; or circling and weaving against a glinting sky.

Golden plover and lapwing pics      Andrew Leggett

We will be showcasing another special species next time.

Other birds, flora and fauna to watch out for now in the Valley:

Non-birding recent sights around RSPB Dearne Valley       Jane Wilkinson

The month of September heralds that the bird migration is in full swing. When you are at Old Moor, Adwick or any of the other satellite sites, watch for the seasonal new arrivals.


Recent sightings:  

Old Moor: Ringed plover and little ringed plover, spotted redshank, great white egret, kingfisher, bittern, common tern, spoonbill, little egret, oyster-catcher, heron.

Swifts and martins, bearded tits, water rail, yellow wagtail, mandarin duck.

Bullfinch, great spotted woodpecker, lesser whitethroat, linnet, reed bunting, robin, willow warbler, blackcap

Kestrel, marsh harrier, sparrowhawk, buzzard, peregrine, hobby.

Common sandpiper, green sandpiper, greenshank, black-tailed godwit, ruff, dunlin, curlew, snipe.

Butterflies: Painted lady, Brimstone, Large white, Red admiral, Peacock, Meadow brown, Gatekeeper, Common blue, Ringlet, Brown argus.

Dragon/damsel flies: Ruddy darter, Common darter, Banded demoiselle, Emperor, Brown hawker, Migrant hawker, Blue damsel, Azure damsel, Emerald damsel, Red-eyed damsel

Ruby-tailed wasp

Adwick: many of the above and with lapwing in the hundreds!! Plus wheatear, sparrowhawk, and the spoonbill that has been seen around much of the valley.

Houghton and Edderthorpe: great white egret, ruff, ringed plover, green sandpiper.

Wombwell: garganey and avocet


Collages of recent sightings and things to watch for in Autumn:

Pictures by Gerald Lax and Gary Stones - Lapwing and chick, greenshank, snipe, little ringed plover

Marsh harrier

Whinchat, yellow wagtail, stonechat, green woodpecker


Garganey and spoonbill

Autumn is a great time for:

All manner of waders: common sandpiper, green sandpiper, redshank, spotted redshank, golden plover, dunlin, curlew sandpiper, little stint.

Keep your eye out for young barn owls, learning the ropes as they hunt over the reedbeds.

Read Jane Wilkinsons previous blogs:

Eye opening 1

Eye Opening 2

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The Lookout, by JW